A fter years in the service of Her Majesty's Brigade of Gurkhas, the decline of the
British Empire has left many of the famous Nepalese soldiers looking elsewhere for
work. Some are in Cambodia, Hurley Scroggins reports.
KAMPONG THOM - Jamansing Rai did not have time to go home and pack when he was offered
a job helping set up a demining training program in Cambodia in late 1993. He was
given one day's notice to get his affairs in order and board a plane in Katmandu.
It was not the first time he had been called on short notice to serve in a faraway
He left his native Nepal in 1952 to join his uncle, who was serving in the British
Brigade of Gurkhas in Malaya. Five years later, he was recruited into the Gurkhas'
Boys Brigade. "I had just turned 12 five days before, but my uncle convinced
me to lie about my age," he recalls. "I was rather small at the time so
they made me drink three bottles of milk three times a week. I only weighed 69 pounds
[31 kg] and was four feet nine inches tall." At age 14, he joined the Gurkha
regulars as a fighting soldier.
The next time he returned to his homeland for any length of time he was tall and
strong. The year was 1987. "I really didn't know what to do."
He shares the fate of many Nepalese who joined to serve the Crown as young men and
spent the majority of their lives in distant lands. With cutbacks in British troop
levels, he and many of his countrymen are now working abroad in non-military roles.
Thirty-six retired Gurkhas are currently working in Cambodia. Most of them, 21, are
working as security guards for the Holiday International hotel and casino. According
to security director Keher Singh, the company began hiring the former British soldiers
in late 1994. While he initially said that he was happy to speak with the press,
his bosses later considered it imprudent to do so.
SL International (formerly Samling) has also employed 10 Gurkhas for the past year-and-a-half.
They train Cambodian security officers for the Malaysian timber company. "We
have four in Kratie, four in Koh Kong and two in Nheak Loung," says security
chief El Bitaba. "As you know we were trained by the British. Gurkhas are very
brave, loyal and honest. That is why people like to employ us." He was later
asked not to elaborate on the roles of his men by his manager.
"Some might think that it is not particularly nice under the circumstances to
mention the presence of Gurkhas in the country," says a retired officer who
asked not to be identified.
He mentions that after a regimented life, it is difficult to adjust to the commercial
sector. "Due to our academic backgrounds, we find it difficult to find employment
in a civilian environment," he says. "We tend to seek employment in military
Four retired Gurkhas working in humanitarian roles were allowed by their employer
to speak about their jobs and experiences. They work for Specialized Gurkha Services
based in Hong Kong and are on contract with Handicap International and the Cambodian
Mine Action Center (CMAC) in Kampong Thom province to supervise deminer training.
According to CMAC/Handicap International senior technical advisor Dave McCracken,
the four - Jamansing Rai, Dilkumar Limbu, Bhimraj Limbu and Kul Bahadur Gurung -
have been invaluable to the organization. He says that Jamansing was instrumental
in the creation of standardizing demining training after the creation of CMAC in
"We had to put together deminers trained in several different ways by several
different countries during UNTAC," he recalls. "At the training center
there were three technical assistants for 170 platoons. I don't know what we would
have done without him."
"All of us worked in the Queen's Gurkha Engineering Squadron," says Dilkumar
Limbu. As a relatively small elite group of "sappers" they know nearly
all of each other's names and service numbers. They also have intimate knowledge
of building things, blowing them up and explaining to others how to do it.
In the field they command fond respect from the Cambodians. They are met with rigid
salutes when they pass by a mine field. "It is easy to train them," says
Dilkumar. "They respond to clear instructions with a lot of practice."
When he has criticisms in the field, he takes great effort to explain to the deminers
in detail why. He spends a few minutes telling a deminer why the ring of the metal
detector has to be clean - if it is dirty it may not work, if it doesn't work you
may make a mistake, if you make a mistake you may lose your leg. "We have to
maintain the discipline that they learn in training. Without discipline, you cannot
Following set procedures come naturally to them. "Gurkhas are good soldiers
purely because of discipline - at a different level from other soldiers," he
says. "I think that it comes through the way we are brought up, our tradition.
We join the army and we live up to it."
"I was never frightened. To be honest, I was not brought up in luxury. I didn't
feel far away from home," says Jamansing of his first experiences with the Boy's
Brigade. "Even when my instructors beat or kicked me, I didn't feel homesick."
Dilkumar recalls his first impressions of life outside Nepal. "We were first
sent to Darjeeling [India]. It was the first time out of my village. We got into
a taxi. I had never been in this kind of thing," he recalls.
"I also saw Europeans for the first time. I saw a woman walking a dog and a
gentleman in a waistcoat and suit. That one very much surprised me. He had red ears
and blonde hair. He was going 'beep beep beep'. I think it was English."
He remembers some of his happier days in Malaya as a young soldier. "When I
was in the Boy's Brigade, the British would give us a coke or an orange on Christmas
- even presents!" he smiles. "I still celebrate it even though I am not
Christian. They are some of my happiest memories."
Jamansing dispels the notion that Gurkhas were not allowed to drink alcohol once
they became recruits, but points out that their wages did not allow them many luxuries.
"There was no restriction on drinking, but if I bought one beer a day I wouldn't
have enough money for boot polish and starch for my uniform," he says.
They were also under a lot of pressure to save money for their trips home, since
they were expected to be worldly and relatively rich. "Before, returning to
Nepal as a Gurkha was a big honor, big prestige. You could have a good choice of
wives," says Bhimraj.
"Nowadays girls are not so attracted. They know that we will be away for two
to six years," he says. "We still get first priority over the regular army
though. A Gurkha may be an ugly one, but he has more money and his family can go
to more cities."
For a young Nepalese man, landing a job with the Brigade is no easy task these days.
Thousands will come down from the mountains this October for 200 positions. Very
few are selected into the British army now, but up to 1,000 are serving with the
Indian army or police. They also comprise about half of the Singapore police and
a sizable share of Brunei's security forces.
Cambodia is a relatively new destination, but the Gurkhas say adapting is easy. "Cambodians
don't know a lot about us, but they find us close because we look alike and laugh
at the same jokes," says Dilkumar.
The junior of the four, Kul Bahadur Gurung, says that he has had to learn Khmer quickly
because people think he is Cambodian. "In the market, people always look to
me to translate even though they say Bhimraj looks rather like Prince Ranariddh,"
"We almost have the same social background - the same respects and customs.
[Cambodians] eat more things than we do, but we are catching up. When deminers clear
an area it is really clear - snake, cricket and spider free." He recalls eating
ground spiders in Skoeun, a town famous for the furry morsels on the road to Phnom
Penh. "They were lovely, but I had to look up when I ate them. I also liked
'Hercules' wine, but it took four days to come to my senses."
With adventure comes estrangement from their families. "Every three years we
would get six months home leave in the Brigade. It was very good for family planning,"
Jamansing points out. "I have two sons spaced three years apart."
His strength has become the stuff of legend in Kampong Thom. He once carried more
than 25kgs of cement and sand up 809 steps to the top of Wat Santuk, a climb of 180
meters, during its restoration. "I saw other people doing it and decided to
help. I put the bags on my back and a strap around my forehead." He admits that
his neck hurt, but adds that he was 56 when he did it.
Looking back on his life of service that has landed him in the minefields of Kampong
Thom, he remains resolute and says that he is happy with his fate. "I was not
at an age to make a decision to join," he concludes. "But as long as I
am asked to work, I will carry on. Looking back on it, the army was good to me. The
British were good to me."
While their shoulder patches bear crossed curved "kukri" knives - an
of the British Brigade of Gurkhas - they do not carry them in the field in Cambodia.
"We don't carry kukris because we are on a humanitarian mission," says
Jamansing. "We can't carry what is known for its rather un-humanitarian purposes."